Monday, February 2, 2009

Make it flow!

Over at Moviestorm Towers, we've been thinking about hair. We're planning a hairstyles pack, and so we've been looking at what's possible from a technical point of view, and what's desirable from the movie-maker's point of view. It's one of those issues like grabbing a shirt. What's simple in real life ain't so in animation, and damn nigh impossible in machinima.

OK, I might as well 'fess up. I like long hair. A lot. I find it incredibly sensual. And it looks great when photographed too. Perhaps most importantly for the film-maker, it looks amazing when it moves.

It's not just the huge movements that make the difference, although those can be spectacular. It's the small shimmers as the hair blows in the wind, or as the actress turns her head. When hair drapes over the shoulders, it completely changes the shape of the face as the head moves, obscuring different parts of the face and the light catches the hair in different ways.

However, you try doing that in machinima. It won't work. It just won't.

For a start, most hairpieces in games are pretty low-poly. They're about as much like hair as the plastic hairpieces you get on Lego characters. They don't move like real hair, they don't shine like real hair, they don't have the translucency of real hair, and they don't have all the different colours of real hair. They're basically simple blocks of stuff that look like they've been attacked with several coats of varnish. That's basically because for games, it doesn't matter too much. The gamer's attention is focused elsewhere.

In a film, however, you're much more likely to want to go to close-up, and so there's much more emphasis on making humans look right. We're not bad at faces these days, but it so often looks wrong because of the hair.

Yeah, so what about Lara Croft's ponytail or the hair in Heavenly Sword, you ask. Surely they're good? Well, true, they do have a basic spring mesh in, and so they do actually move. But let's just mention the dread word "intersection". Machinima really isn't sophisticated enough to replicate how hair actually moves, and really isn't sophisticated enough to model how it drapes over the human body. Watch Heavenly Sword carefully, and you'll see her hair go through her clothes, her shoulder, her legs, her weapons, and itself. It looks pretty awesome in motion when you're in the middle of a battle sequence, but watch the extracts as a piece of film and they just look wrong. With less advanced engines, like Moviestorm, The Sims, or SL, they just don't care: hair will cut through anything. And that always bugs the hell out of me.

When machinima can give me hair like this, I'll be impressed. Until then, I'll always be wanting more than is technically possible. Like the shirts I mentioned earlier, it's even a real bastard to do with "traditional" CG animation. There are some things where actors and cameras win hands down.

Oh, and to save me writing another whole post on the subject of things you can't do with machinima: the same goes for long, flowing clothing. I like that too, and machinima just can't do it. Just replace the word "hair" with "cloth" and it's pretty much the same. Bah.

And no, I'm not having a downer on machinima. It's more that after four years working full-time in the medium, I'm getting a strong sense of where its true limitations are, and are always likely to be.


Will Shetterly said...

When you compare machinima to live action, I always think you're looking up when you should be looking down. It can't compete, but that's not a weakness.

Machinima should accept that it'll always be slightly artificial, slightly stylized. Realism is impossible, but that's cool. Have you read Scott McCloud's books on comics? Iconic art is every bit as powerful as realistic art. It has strengths that realistic art can't have--it's more universal, for one, because you're not seeing a specific person, but a representation of one. You never think, 'That's Christian Bale pretending to be Batman." You just think, "That's Batman."

Which is to say I think you should have fun with the hair and happily keep away from the uncanny valley.

Matt Kelland said...

That's not what I'm trying to get at - there are things machinima does very well, and things it doesn't. In order to get the most out of the medium, it's important to know what its hard limitations are, and work within them. Just like there are some things I can do with a guitar that I can't do with a violin, and things I can do with a keyboard that I can't do with either.

So yes, in some respects machinima can't compete with film. On the other hand, there are things I can do in machinima that I just couldn't do in film or even "real" CG animation without a lot of budget and many years experience.

And I do like Scott McCloud's stuff!

Will Shetterly said...

Total agreement. Maybe instead of up and down, I should've talked in terms of looking sideways, because I don't see a hierarchy between 2D, 3D, and live action. Machinima has its strengths, and it's always good to push the limits on what you can do. Watching Moviestorm grow in the last few months has been grand.

Matt Kelland said...

Maybe it's time to counteract the last couple of posts with one about what machinima does so well?

Will Shetterly said...

At its best? It's fast, stylish storytelling that's available to anyone with a computer. If there's a faster way to make a great-looking movie, I don't know it.

Will Shetterly said...

P.S. I'm so slow! I just realized that it sounded like I was knocking machinima in general when I said it can't compete with live action. I meant it can't compete with the kind of hair you get from live action. Great machinima hair isn't perfectly realistic, but it still looks great.

Sorry about being unclear!

Kate Fosk and Michael R. Joyce said...

...but what about this (machinima made in second life by experienced and skilled film-maker) Intersection is like everything else in machinima, there are ways of getting it horribly wrong but is that a reason to dismiss it altogether?
SL mach creators have the choice of choosing static or flowing hair. Even the static sl hair causes intersection problems in certain positions, unless it is very short.
I hate working around it as much as everybody else.
However it just isn't possible to eliminate intersection problems, so why use that as a reason to create such hard limits for users? -Kate

Matt Kelland said...

That is, indeed, a gorgeous video that makes both hair and cloth move wonderfully. I'm not trying to impose limits, though, and certainly not trying to say machinimators shouldn't do certain things. If you don't mind the result, then go for it. But if you can't get the result you want, then work around it, use a different medium, or shoot something else.

sisch said...

I normally do mind intersection a lot myself - but seeing "Fall" again, and concentrating on the hair, and yes it intersects from time to time - and still - to my eyes, the moving hair is utterly gorgeous, as is the whole movie; so much so that I didn't even see the intersection on first viewing.

It's always a matter of what you'd be willing to accept as a filmmaker - we always have to make compromises - and on the other hand, what the audience is willing to "overlook"... and in my experience the audience is very often much more inclined to overlook things than the director is.

Matt Kelland said...

"the audience is very often much more inclined to overlook things than the director is" - ain't that the truth!

Anonymous said...

That is a case of bad editing on my part! There is no reason why hair need be shown intersecting, just be more stricter on the filming and edit? It might be a bugger to film, but it's worth having the option of longer hair if you ask me.

Trace (Lainy)